By Elizabeth Kiehner (Co-Founder & Principal, Thornberg & Forester)
Having already started a successful design studio in New York, I am interested in launching yet another business. Thornberg & Forester is a creative boutique launched four and a half years ago with just three of us in a co-working space.
We are now 15 people strong and are in the middle of our best year ever from a financial standpoint. We are also entering a new phase and getting back into start-up mode by investing in our own IP and application development. Many design firms are conceiving of and selling their own products and platforms.
This is what makes the landscape for a start-up today all the more exciting. We have generated jobs literally around the world — we hire independent contractors who work both on-site and remotely. Fellow entrepreneur Cindy Gallop’s entire team is remote. What works for some may not work for others, but there are certainly unique ways to approach your business structure and the way you think about size, scale and global reach.
Looking back, I can trace the paths I’ve taken to get where I am now and identify many similar traits and inspirations I’ve had from a young age. Ever the entrepreneur, I was that kid with the lemonade stand who began crafting and selling jewelry around the age of eleven or twelve in central Pennsylvania. Though neither of my parents went to college, I have always been driven by challenges and was curious to discover more. I was always interested in redesigning the way business was done even if it was merely redesigning the coffee lounge I ran in college.
I attended university in Washington, DC with a brief stint in Prague, after which I lived in both Chicago and Los Angeles. My first position in Manhattan sparked my interest in design, and New York in general has a social Darwinian effect on people since it is not easy to live here. Years later, I reconnected with two former colleagues and my current business partners — and together we created Thornberg & Forester. The company’s name, based on entirely fictitious characters’ names and brand identity, was self-funded because our initial capital investment was not huge, and we did not want to give a piece of the firm away to anyone. This has been a great model for our particular type of business.
All the turns, twists, and missteps I’ve taken along this journey have informed a set of lessons that might prove useful to others, especially those interested in pursuing similar goals.
Think big — Initially, we designed a company by keeping in mind all the characteristics we disliked from other firms were we worked with, then negating them. However, in focusing just on this aspect of creation, we failed to set up a vast, long-term vision for the long term. Tempting as it may seem to brazenly jump into the midst of this exciting process, do not forget to set comprehensive goals for the future.
Integrate social responsibility — We do a lot of work with non-profits and companies that are ethically moral and progressive –- we got this right from the get-go in setting up our business. I have friends in finance who want to rake in all the money and theoretically join a foundation or non-profit later; perhaps not the healthiest model.
Redesign the way you do business — Flee as quickly as possible from people stating “Well, I’ve been in the business for twenty years and we have always done it this way.” Rather, be forward-looking and thinking. Try things out, launch fresh ideas, stay adaptable.
“Always have a plan B.” — (Duly noted by Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock). Don’t let everything hang on one presumed outcome. Anticipate curveballs, think on your feet, and always remember the world is bigger than you are.
Looking back to how my company was created immediately makes me look towards the future. What’s next? Though nothing is set in stone, I plan on following my adventurous, intrepid spirit. Eager to try something totally different and unexpected, I will continue to expand my comfort zone.
Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Elizabeth Kiehner is Co-Founder and Principal at Thornberg & Forester, rebuilding the traditional agency model. Elizabeth brings years of management and business development experience to Thornberg & Forester, giving her a deep knowledge of how to both lead a team and produce powerful, experiential branded storytelling experiences. The great-granddaughter of a coal miner, Elizabeth left rural Pennsylvania to study visual media at American University and FAMU in Prague. Follow her on Twitter at @kiehner.